Authors: Linda Barnes
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A Michael Spraggue Mystery
To my parents, Hilda and Irv Appelblatt
While centered around an actual roadrace, the famed Boston Marathon, this remains a work of fiction, and any resemblance between the characters herein and real people, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
With sweaty fingers, Spraggue yanked a crumpled scrap of paper from the pocket of his running shorts. He didn't have to read it; he knew it. Awkward block printing on dime-store stationery. Today's date, in numerals and slashes, in the upper right-hand corner.
CHESTNUT HILL RESERVOIR
. Beneath it,
RUN FOR YOUR LIFE
. Beneath that, 3
And at the bottom, the scrawled signature that took most of the sting out of the threat,
A FRIEND INDEED
Frowning, he shoved the note back in his pocket, glanced around hoping to get a glimpse of the author.
The scene would have been picture postcard stuff if not for all the ragtag runners. The reservoir's shape could, have been fashioned by nature rather than bulldozer. Furled along an irregular rocky coast, the water seemed suspectâtoo perfect a blue, barely rippled by the mid-April breeze. If you ignored busy Beacon Street slicing through the middle, the grounds resembled those of an English country estate, with the tiny, boxlike gatehouses and support structures along the shore serving as outbuildings to the two ornate Chestnut Hill Pumping Stations.
Afternoon sunshine glinted off the surface of the pond and forced the runners to squint. Those who had come equipped with sun visors smugly pulled them down. Spraggue, lacking visor or sunglasses, momentarily shut his eyes, sun-struck, and stubbed his toe on a lurking rock. One more discomfort hardly seemed to matter.
Today's most aggravating scenario, he thought, plodding determinedly onward, would encompass aching musclesâworseâa torn Achilles tendon, the direct result of pretending a thirty-five-year-old body could still move like an eighteen-year-old one. Blistered feet. One car towed from its dubious mooring in a zone prominently marked by No Parking signsâworseâheld captive by the dread yellow Denver Boot, bane of Boston drivers. He tried to recall whether he had the requisite five unpaid parking tickets stuffed in the dash compartment. And to top it all off, the anonymous letter writer wouldn't show.
The trail narrowed and changed from shin-splintering cement to a foot-mangling mixture of gravel and turf. A murderous incline made the fronts of his thighs shriek in protest, the backs of his thighs cringe in anticipation of the eventual decline.
The path swarmed with runners, atoning for training time lost to the freak April blizzard, chests emblazoned with the logos of sportswear manufacturers or the locales of popular road races: New York; Denver; Charleston; Falmouth; Eugene, Oregon. Fukuoka, Japan was represented by a slight, exuberant Oriental in spotless white running shorts. Through sun-dazzled eyes, the runnersâdespite their mismatched apparel and dirty sneakersâlooked uniformly young, incredibly thin, disgustingly fit. Feeling like some creaky relic, Spraggue increased his pace. He'd have asked the attractive, bronzed woman running alongside him when they'd started letting babies run the Boston Marathon, if he'd thought he could summon sufficient breath to string together the ten or so necessary words. He knew that if he tried, he'd gasp like a salmon jerked out of a stream. He dug his balled fist into his right side, searching for the source of a gnawing ache.
Could the bronzed woman have composed the curious note, delivered it to Aunt Mary, the only person always able to contact him? Was that why she paced herself so steadily beside him? Even as he had the thought, she gulped in a deep breath, and sprinted ahead.
On the whole, he hoped his mysterious correspondent was a woman, a fascinating dark-eyed woman, with sculptured cheekbones and a ready, aching smile.
Didn't any of these runners perspire?
Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?
To keep his mind off a right baby toe that felt like a swelling balloon, off the letter writer's three o'clock deadline, he recited bits of
As You Like It
under his breath. Not his own lines, but those of the banished Duke Senior, words appropriate to the rustic surroundings. And he scrutinized the faces of approaching runners, chiding himself for paying greater attention to the females. It wasn't that he believed the anonymous note to be a feminine invention, he admitted. It was pure loneliness, pure longing.
He considered the possible benefits of consoling himself with one of his female colleagues at the Harvard Rep. The exquisite, if predatory lady who played Celia to his Oliver, perhaps. Was there any hope for an honest relationship with a woman with whom he feigned falling in love four times a week in Act Four, scene three?
The ache in his side took a fierce bite out of his appendix and his calf muscles picked the same moment to shift from minor grievance to screaming alarm.
“Spraggue! Over here!”
The rumbling voice was unmistakable. He turned his head and saw Pete Collatos, dark hair plastered in ringlets against his skull, sprinting toward him. A terry-cloth band, circling his broad forehead, failed to keep the sweat from pouring down his swarthy face. Spraggue's mouth split in a rueful grin. So much for the mystery woman. He tried to breathe normally. His lungs burned.
Collatos' running companion, a strikingly familiar-looking man wearing last year's '81 Boston Marathon T-shirt, approached from the right and halted, jogging in place, breathing as softly and regularly as if he'd been relaxing in a lounge chair by the side of a crystal pool instead of racing hell for leather around the Chestnut Hill Reservoir.
Collatos wiped his hand off on his shorts before offering it for a handshake. “I thought you were one of those lousy, good for nothing, half-hour-in-the-morning-if-it-doesn't-rain runners. You gonna do the marathon this year?”
“No way.” Spraggue searched for a sign that he'd met up with his anonymous correspondent, decided not to mention the reason for his unusual afternoon run. Not yet. “How's Boston's finest?”
“Hang on to your hat; I'm not a cop anymore,” Collatos said. “Got laid off. Goddamn Proposition 2Â½.” The ex-cop smacked himself on the forehead with the flat of his palm, a gesture Spraggue remembered from countless nights in a sweltering telephone booth of an office at police headquarters, and turned to the man jogging impatiently at his side. “Excuse me. Sorry, Brian. Meet one of the snakes I had to deal with when I was a humble civil servant. Michael SpraggueâSenator Brian Donagher.”
That accounted for the overwhelming sense of familiarity. Spraggue mentally kicked himself for not tagging a name to the man earlier. But this Donagher looked much older than the brash upstart who'd run for U.S. Senate six years ago on a platform as liberal as that of any sixties Democrat and confounded all the pollsters by winning. He'd aged more than the time should have allowed. His hair looked darker than it did on television, on his ubiquitous campaign posters. His blue eyes, twinkling out of a nest of fine lines that belied his youthful physique, seemed just as frank, his face as gaunt.
The senator displayed a flash of even white teeth as he extended his hand, crinkling up his face even more. “If you're the Michael Spraggue who spells his last name with two g's, I've met your aunt at a few fundraisers lately.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Spraggue said, returning the man's smile. “Get anything out of her?” He wished someone would suggest going out for a drink.
“A few tips on playing the stock market.”
“You running the marathon?”
Donagher's face seamed into another smile. “You bet. God, I've missed running the damn thing. Last year, when I was sitting on my butt on that reviewing stand at the Prudential Center, I vowed that I'd run it this year, if I had to get the Senate to pass a special bill letting me out for training time.”
“Planning to come in second again?”
“Give me a break. It's been five years since I made the top ten. Warming a chair in Washington isn't the best preparation for Heartbreak Hill. Look, why don't I keep on moving while you guys chat about old times? I've got a few more miles to rack up and I don't want my leg muscles stiffening.”
“You sure it's okay?” Collatos spoke in an undertone, full of concern.
“No problem,” Donagher reassured him, using the same hushed tone. “This isn't exactly midnight in a dark alley. I'll pick you up next circuit. Nice meeting you, Spraggue.”
“Stay away from the press,” Collatos hollered after him, grinning.
As soon as Donagher was out of sight, Spraggue collapsed onto a large flat rock by the side of the trail and rubbed his legs. “You're looking good,” he said after a two-minute pause. He wasn't going to be the one to mention the note.
Collatos laughed. “It's that goddamned diet. Preparation for the marathon. Man, the day after the race, I'm gonna down three six-packs and stuff five large Regina's pizzas with sausage, onion, and anchovies down my throat.”
“Remind me to avoid you on April twentieth. Are you carbohydrate loading?”
“Nah, it's some fancy diet some doctor concocted for Donagher. I run with him; I follow his diet.”
And why are you, a former detective, running with the junior senator from Massachusetts? Spraggue wanted to ask.
“Sorry you got canned,” he said instead. Was Collatos responsible for that note? He'd been so sure when he'd first seen him; it was the kind of gag Collatos would pull.â¦